Blumlein and the Birth of Stereo

This week it was announced that the 59th Annual Grammy Awards will see the EMI prodigy Alan Blumlein awarded a posthumous Grammy for his influential work on the development of stereo recording. Blumlein patented a number of inventions whilst working for Columbia Graphophone, later merged into EMI, and would have continued contributing to the technological development of radar, broadcasting and other communications industries were it not for his untimely death during World War II.

Blumlein's work in stereophony involved the pioneering use of two coincidently-placed microphones to produce what he called 'binaural recording'. It is noteworthy that Blumlein drew on his own experiences in the cinema, where he found the marriage of visual and sonic imagery to be lacking. The silver screen of the early 1930s was a backdrop against which he listened to and judged the spatial components of audio, growing frustrated with the lack of movement conveyed by these early cinematic soundtracks.

It is high time Blumlein's work is given due recognition. However, it is also worth remembering that Rome was not built in a day. Stereo blossomed over a period of many years stretching from the late-nineteenth century to the early 1970s. It was a technology relevant to both recording and playback media, one that benefitted from the input of numerous practitioners working across different industries and musical genres.

Théâtrophone

Other notable milestones include the Théâtrophone, which was first demonstrated in Paris in 1881 and put to commercial use across Europe in the following decades. Two carbon microphones transmitted a 'stereo' signal along telephone lines to various audience members who would hold receivers up to both sides of their head.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski's work with RCA, Columbia and other American companies is well documented particularly in relation to the so-called Fantasound system. His collaboration with Walt Disney made use of multi-microphone arrays to produce bespoke stereophonic recordings that were brought to mainstream audiences via the 1940 animated film Fantasia.

In the postwar years Decca, EMI and the BBC, alongside various European record labels and radio stations like ORTF and NOS, built on these microphone techniques to create a range of stereo images that continue to be used today on classical recordings, film scores and video game soundtracks. On the rock and pop side, the widespread adoption of stereo FM broadcasting meant that albums from the 1970s onwards were mixed primarily in stereo rather than mono. An audience beyond the small confines of hi-fi enthusiasts could now enjoy the latest releases in stereo on a daily basis, perhaps most significantly in the car where the importance of mix placement was enhanced by the positioning of the listener relative to the left and right channels.

Ancient Soundscapes

The visual domain tends to be given priority over the sonic domain when it comes to historical reconstructions of people, structures and places. The question of what things looked like eclipses less tangible questions of what the surrounding spaces might have sounded like.

Yet there is a wealth of famous ancient architecture that once served fascinating acoustical purposes before one even considers its appearance. Today the BBC reported on the growing use of VR within archaeology, which helps historians answer the most pertinent questions about forgotten sensory experiences. Stonehenge is the latest structure to have been rendered in a virtual reality app, using audio plugins to remove the extraneous sounds of the motorway and to recreate the spatial and acoustic properties of the once-intact stone circle.

There are a number of other ancient buildings that deserve to be explored through similar reconstructive digital technologies. By re-engineering acoustical properties we can potentially be brought closer to past ways of hearing and experiencing an environment. There is no shortage of lively sounds and spaces to inhabit, from inexplicable modes of acoustic amplification and seemingly endless echoes, to uncanny emulations of nature such as the Mayan El Castillo pyramid's famous avian echo that resembles the Mexican quetzal bird:

Ozzy Osbourne & Randy Rhoads

Whatever you think of the Osbournes and their bizarre public persona, there is no denying the force of Ozzy Osbourne's career turn in the early-1980s. Black Sabbath had dried up creatively and irreconcilable differences between the band members led Ozzy to strike out on his own with a new band. Wife Sharon Osbourne effectively rescued her husband from the worst of his drink problems, and helped him manage a fresh four-piece lineup that included the prodigious Randy Rhoads on guitar.

Ozzy Osbourne Randy Rhoads

Ozzy's first two albums gained critical and commercial success by fusing heavy metal riffs and guitar solos with pop harmonies and song structures. In later years he veered too close to the synth-laden pop side for many people's tastes, but on Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman the combination was held in equilibrium by the neo-classical sensibilities of Rhoads, who co-wrote many of the songs.

The tragedy of Randy Roads' premature death at the hands of a light aircraft joy ride in 1982 is well documented. The news left Ozzy and his touring band distraught, and it's this personal connection that makes the video below so touching. Rhoads' searing guitar tone is captured magnificently on the master tape of Ozzy's first solo single, "Crazy Train", and it is a bittersweet experience for the singer to listen back 34 years later.

He has since fallen out with original bassist and drummer Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake, even going as far as re-recording their performances on a subsequent remaster of the album to deny them future royalties. And yet, despite these rifts and Ozzy's longstanding obsession with the occult and all things profane, his connection with Rhoads' brief but prolific spell of work is always treated as sacred.

Rudy Van Gelder

In many ways Rudy Van Gelder, the New Jersey-based jazz recording engineer who died on 25 August aged 91, was an anomaly. There aren't many veterans of the recording industry with a similarly impressive list of credits who would claim not to listen to the music because they're focusing on the sound of a session. Marc Myers writes, "he never developed much of a passion for the music, despite being an ear-witness to some of jazz greatest studio performances. Rudy simply didn't have the time to become a pure fan given how much he had to get right with the studio's technology on his sessions. As Rudy put it, he didn't have the luxury of listening for enjoyment."

In a 2012 interview with Myers, Gelder admitted "When I'd see photos of jazz musicians recording or performing, I found myself looking at the mikes, not them." Having recorded seminal LPs by Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, to name a few, one would hope for more of an insight into the sessions. Yet Gelder's recollection of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which he engineered in 1964, was that "The session was hypnotic, exciting and different. But I didn't realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later."

Rudy Van Gelder mixing desk

Other producers and engineers, particularly from Gelder's generation, rarely claim to put anything other than the music at the top of their priority list. Whether he truly heard things differently or was simply being more honest than his peers, Gelder's recording philosophy is refreshing. 

He also took an unusual route into the industry. An optometrist by trade and a notoriously reticent character, Gelder famously twilighted on a home recording setup in his parents' Hackensack living room. As more and more artists of repute went to work with him, these sessions gradually took over his daytime until he was working full time for labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Vox Records. Whereas most practitioners would learn their craft through studio-based apprenticeships – watching their mentors operate tape machines, consoles and disc cutters and working as part of a sizeable in-house team – Van Gelder began his recording education in solitude, reading much of the domestic recording literature aimed at the amateur market.

There is a fastidious sound to his records, much as if he approached each instrument one by one. His mic placement on the rhythm section gives an impressively crisp sound, partly due to the relatively dry acoustic, but perhaps it also bypasses the sounds that invariably emanated from between the players in the room. If it's an acclaimed sound that defined much of what postwar jazz is thought to be, then it's an acquired taste too. 

 
 

Van Gelder's personality traits, along with his unique career progression, led to the saddest tragedy of all  the fact he resisted all interview questions about technique and ultimately took the majority of his recording secrets to the grave.

Tape Op

Assistant engineers, sometimes called second engineers or 'tape ops', traditionally learnt the ropes in the studio by starting and stopping the tape machine whilst observing the first engineer at the recording console. They listened more than they asked questions.

Although operating a tape machine sounds simple enough, tape ops were often put under pressure. Peter Mew, a mastering engineer I interviewed at Abbey Road Studios in 2013 before his retirement, described how classical producers would ask him to 'go back four bars' during playback sessions even though bar numbers weren't marked on the tape itself. The task was one of translation, working out how far to rewind according to the tape speed and tempo of the performance. 

It wasn't just classical playbacks where these sorts of requests were made. There is alarming footage of the studio sessions for John Lennon's song "Oh Yoko!", held in the summer of 1971, which shows Lennon berating engineer Philip McDonald for repeatedly dropping him into the wrong part of the song. Phil Spector remains quiet as he sings backing vocals alongside Lennon but the tension is palpable. Weathering the tantrums of artists is just one of the occupational hazards of the recording studio.

"No Hiding Place"

Document Records Norfolk Jubilee Quartet

1 June marks the beginning of African-American Music Appreciation Month, and although I'd normally argue that every month should be celebrated as such, it is an excuse to pull out some great 78 RPMs from the Jubilee quartets. The Norfolk Jazz and Jubilee Quartet from Virginia recorded a personal favourite of mine in the late-1930s, which has since been re-released by Document Records. I'm still waiting for an original copy to surface on eBay...

Glyndebourne Tonmeister

For over half a century, sound recording at Glyndebourne was managed by John Barnes. Alongside his work in management Barnes took a keen interest in high fidelity recording, kitting out the quintessentially English opera house with a formidable selection of high-end audio gear:

Glyndebourne recording equipment

His approach was nothing short of fastidious, from the optimum placement of Schoeps microphones in the auditorium to the clever wiring of the control room, which minimises interference and maximises galvanic isolation in the analogue and digital lines.

For Glyndebourne's biggest season yet, Eastwood Records will be continuing Barnes's legacy as Tonmeister through archival work on old recordings, and recording the 2016 Festival in high definition. The music of each stunning production is being captured at 96kHz in a multi-channel, surround sound format so it remains future-proof, and we will also contribute edits and mixes to various promotional material released by the company. Millennia and Earthworks mic pres paired with Prism and RME A/D conversion never sounded so good.

Click here to listen to more recordings produced by Eastwood Records.

Buena Vista Social Club

Though Ry Cooder's work with the Buena Vista Social Club has received criticism from some quarters, there is no denying the recordings he produced in the late-'90s and early-00's were beautifully crafted. The band was effectively a collective of current and retired Cuban musicians, most of whom have now passed away, who alternated with each other depending on the style, genre and requirements of each track.

The studio was EGREM, a dilapidated yet well-equipped facility in the heart of Havana. Cooder's engineer was Jerry Boys, an EMI stalwart who cut his teeth at Abbey Road in the mid-1960s. Tantalising glimpses of footage from the sessions can be seen in the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club, which shows a fantastically tuned live room being used to its full acoustic potential by the band. Classic German microphones by Neumann and Sennheiser are placed close, but not too close, to each instrument and voice. Boys dispenses with headphones and isolation booths. These are musicians who spent decades recording local radio hits and know how to perform into a microphone without artificial aids.

The overall sound is blended, mostly by the bleed between microphones and performers, and what I find most impressive is the sumptuously full bandwidth achieved by purely acoustic instruments. From the warmest lows of the double bass up through the honky mids of the decrepit piano, so touchingly played by the late Rubén González, and the haunting Spanish voices, to the highs of the laser-like trumpets and an incredibly satisfying percussion section, tracks like "Chan Chan" and the self-titled "Buena Vista Social Club" are a tribute to old-fashioned recording methods standing up for themselves in a digital age.

The icing on the cake is the use of a Studer reel-to-reel tape machine, which softens the record's transients like butter. However, this medium was chosen not because of some retro fetish but simply because the studio only had tape to hand. Boys, who worked in his teens as a tape op on sessions by Yehudi Menuhin, Manfred Mann and The Beatles, was the perfect candidate for the job.

 

Sir George

George Martin's career spanned an incredible diversity of musical genres from baroque, light classical, comedy, children's and novelty records, to pop, rock, psychedelia, trad jazz, jazz fusion and numerous other crossover styles. It's easy to forget this when remembering his role as the 'fifth Beatle'. His pre-1962 work at EMI's Parlophone is the subject of a part-time Edison Fellowship I will be taking up at the British Library in September. There are unexplored musical connections that take root during Martin's training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and continue into his work producing the English Baroque Orchestra, Bernard Cribbins and others. More to follow...

George Martin Peter Sellers Sophia Loren Abbey Road Studios EMI Parlophone

Producing EWF

Not only did Maurice White sing and write for Earth, Wind & Fire, he also produced most of their records. A drummer himself, White valued the band's ability to groove live in the studio and nowhere is this more evident than on "Jupiter" (1977). At a time when session musicians were increasingly being asked to play to a click track, and digital samplers were being developed by Fairlight, Linn and others, the performance on this record is testimony to the importance of human feel. Compare the BPM at the beginning and end of the track for a masterclass in natural acceleration:

 
 

Fast forward to the 2010s and software companies are returning to this idea. A sophisticated tempo detection algorithm in Celemony's Melodyne 4, for example, means the "click keeps time with the musicians, not the other way around". Personally I've never been a fan of metronomes, and technological advances like this seem the best way to continue White's legacy into the twenty-first century.

Strat King

Thomas Blug is a fine guitar player. In 2004 he won Fender's "Strat King of Europe" award and deservedly so. Everything about this recording is perfect, from the drum sound to the various guitar solos, and it's all performed live. The track is an original instrumental called "I'll Be There" (not to be confused with a certain Motown classic), and Mark Knopfler would be proud of the blues licks at 5:43. No cheating with the play cursor, though, you have to earn the right to hear that bit.

Little Walter

Today's announcement that the ARC Music Group has been sold again, this time by the Fuji Music Group to BMG, invites us to re-visit the Chess Records catalogue. The Chess brothers formed ARC in 1948 as a publishing associate to their Chicago-based enterprise, which went on to become the US's premiere R&B record label in the 1950s. The early records are all mono of course, but they still capture a great sense of space around the house band. Little Walter's harmonica playing is particularly 'electrifying':

Starman, Waiting in the Sky

Shel Talmy produced some of David Bowie's earliest records. Looking back, Talmy said "the only problem with what I recorded [in 1965] is that it was about six years ahead of the market." When Bowie 'retired' onstage as Ziggy Stardust in 1973, his band were shocked by the premature announcement. In a sense, Bowie was always one step ahead of his audience, and his death leaves the world catching up...

Star Wars

It's difficult to escape the biggest film of 2015. After A New Hope was released in 1977, numerous LPs of John Williams' soundtrack were recorded by various labels. One session took place on this day 38 years ago, featuring the National Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Charles Gerhardt. The record was produced by George Korngold for RCA. Fellow engineers may be interested to see Kenneth Wilkinson's original setup:

A Shortlived Namesake

American rocker Bobby Fuller picked up where fellow Texan Buddy Holly left off in 1959, fusing rock 'n' roll with early-1960s surf rock. As well as singing and playing guitar in his own four-piece band, Fuller set up a series of indie record labels, including Eastwood Records (1962-3).

 
Bobby Fuller Eastwood Records
 

He produced and engineered several records using local broadcast equipment before achieving some mainstream success in Hollywood. Fuller's records were often covers of recent hits, as was common practice, but he also wrote his own music. His guitar sound on "Stringer", a B-side surf instrumental from 1963, showcases a classic spring reverb:

 
 

Fuller's label changed its name after just three records. Rest assured this Eastwood Records is here to stay...